How one outdoorsman bounced back—physically and mentally—from a horrific accident
Last summer, I began my involuntary rehabilitation program when I found myself on the ground instead of flying like I'd been moments before. I was soaring above Colorado's White River Wilderness with my paraglider when a gust of wind sent me falling a hundred feet to a grassy slope below. When I made it to a hospital the next day, I learned that I'd broken 11 bones, the highlights being my exploded seventh cervical vertebra and the right wing of my hip. The vertebra required immediate surgery to prevent paralysis. Expected recovery time: six months. I forgot my fall climbing and backpacking ambitions and began to learn my new life as a man in a neck brace.
A month later, doctors found I had a congenital heart defect that would require open heart surgery. So, I recovered for five months before I had the heart procedure done. It has been a rocky year to say the least, but I’m still pushing to get back into the backcountry. Now, eight months after my fall, I'm gearing up to head to Joshua Tree to climb and backpack, many milestones from where I sat in my hospital gown less than a year ago.
The long road to recovery taught me some valuable lessons. Here's what I learned about taking care of my body and my mind—and how to return to the wilderness as quickly as possible.
1. Gradually Build Back Fitness
After my accident, I was anxious to get back to doing what I loved: exploring the great outdoors. The key to a quick recovery, though, was slow and incremental steps in my exercise regimen. For starters, I began walking. A lot. I found comfort in hiking the trails I had once run, and would walk as long as I could maintain good posture. Then, I took a job canvassing for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. In a few months, I went from barely tolerating a couple miles to walking 10 miles a day with a backpack.
Along with walking, I incorporated a few exercises to strengthen my core, legs, and arms so they would hold up over the course of day. With the advice of my physical therapist, I used rubber exercise bands to bring muscle tone back to arms, shoulder, and back. I’m also a big fan of using a balance board to gently exercise my core and legs. Below, I’ll talk about some of my most-used exercises, which helped me get back into hiking and climbing shape.
This exercise is important for maintaining good posture and balancing any of the ab work you do on your front side. Lie down on your stomach, with your arms at or above your head, contract your back until your chest lifts off the ground. When starting out, don’t be too aggressive until your back has warmed up. Lift your head and back up, hold for a few seconds, and then release to relaxation. Repeat until you're tired or as many as 15 reps. For increased difficulty, hold your legs off the ground or lift your chest higher.
This exercise will strengthen muscles in your back, side abdominals, hips, and quads, while lengthening and loosening the muscles that support your spine. With your feet together, bring your hands together in front of your chest. Then, lower your hips back and down until you’re almost in a sitting position. Bending first from the waist, then chest and shoulders. Rotate until you can rest your tricep on your knee. Keep your knees level and your chest wide as you hold this position for 30 seconds. Next, try the other side.
Supine Spinal Twist
If you aren’t quite up for the revolving chair, try this twist to relax your lower back while gravity does the work. Lie flat on your back and bring one knee up to a 90-degree angle. Then bring the knee across your body to the floor, rotating your lower body while trying to keep your shoulders on the ground. Bend both knees if this feels too intense. Use your lower abdominals to move your legs from side to side. Hold for as long as you'd like.
2. Relax Your Muscles
There are generally two types of muscle pain: neuromuscular and myofascial. You may know neuromuscular pain as sore muscles, tightness, and muscle spasms. This is a direct result of the muscle not being able to relax. This can be an injury response, a buildup of lactic acid from chronic use, or even stress related to your daily life.
Myofacial pain is a little different. When muscles are frequently tense, they pull on the myofascial tissue that surrounds and connects the layers of tissue in your body. This connective tissue binds up when strained and causes knots in your muscles. It can be difficult to discern what sort of pain you're plagued by, but both types respond well to stretching, gentle exercise, and massage. The key word here is gentle, as too much exercise will actually delay the healing process. When it became time for me to start exercising, my spine surgeon emphasized stretching, working out, and then stretching again to avoid soreness.
My favorite activity when I’m lounging around the house is to roll out my back muscles with tennis balls. Here's how: Take two tennis balls, put them in a sock, and tie it off. Place it on the ground and lie back, positioning the balls on either side of your spine. Start at the base of your spine, just above your hips, and relax your muscles as you let gravity push your back into the tennis balls. I like to stop at every vertebra for at least 30 seconds. This technique may reveal sore muscle points that you didn’t even know you had. Using this method can release muscle tension in your back, neck, hips, and even chest, so it’s a good place to start. You can use a tennis ball—or even a lacrosse ball—anywhere you have knots to break up the strained tissue.
3. Eat More Protein
Eating food that contains the nutrients your body needs to rebuild and improve itself is incredibly important. In times of recovery or muscle building, your skeletal tissues are inflamed and sore. In your diet, you have a choice to eat food that can manage and decrease inflammation, or add to it.
I try to eat protein that contains as many essential amino acids (handy for fighting inflammation) as possible, while avoiding saturated fats (which tend to boost inflammation). Of course, talk to your doctor first, but depending on your situation, you may want to increase your protein intake from .8g of protein/kg of weight, to as much as 1.5 or 2g/kg. Your body’s metabolism and protein needs are increased when healing.
Studies suggest that not only is the type of fat important, but so is what that fat is made of. Cows that eat grass have much more omega-3 fat content, which is crucial for lowering inflammation and building tissue. Foods such as chicken, fish, chickpeas, almonds, walnuts, and avocados are the rock stars of healthy fats and plentiful protein. The best way to closely track the type of protein you're eating? Avoid eating out frequently and foods that come in boxes. Instead, cook at home so you know exactly what you're putting into your healing body.
4. Check Your Attitude
The mental aspect of recovery is just as important as the physical aspect, but it's often overlooked. When you’re gearing up for a new training regimen, don’t expect quick changes and immediate results. Set manageable goals for yourself (a physical therapist can help you with this) and write down your progress. When you start making gains, you will see it in the data—use those victories to propel your momentum. Trust the process. I’ve had good days and I’ve had sore, grumpy, and depressing days when all I wanted to eat was ice cream. What kept me moving in a positive direction was sharing my struggles with others and keeping the long term commitment I made to my summer adventure goals. Give yourself goals, surround yourself with friends, expect challenges, and above all, stay positive.